It’s Black History Month! As the self-appointed film/television
nerd authority for Odyssey’s Ohio City contingent, today I’m going to use this space to tell you why you should be watching a miniseries called Madiba on the Black Entertainment Television channel.
Madiba is a miniseries airing on the BET network in three installments: the first third aired on the 1st of this month, the second will air on the 8th, and the final third will air on the 15th. Laurence Fishburne stars as the late Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter who sacrificed much, including his own freedom, as the most well-known leader of the struggle against the Apartheid system of institutionalized racism which plagued his home country for five decades, before later being elected President. The title is in reference to the Madiba clan, a lineage to which Mandela belonged. “Madiba” was also an honorific used to refer to him personally as a sign of respect. Considering recent events and how fixated we are as a country on the issues of institutionalized racism, discrimination, government overreach and protests against the same both peaceful and otherwise, a fresh look at the life of Nelson Mandela and the cause he fought and suffered for probably could not be any more relevant than at this moment in time.
Madiba is based on both of Mandela’s autobiographies, Conversations with Myself and Nelson Mandela by Himself, and covers a span of approximately fifty years in Mandela’s life, beginning with his early career as a lawyer in his twenties defending South Africans of color suffering under the Apartheid system, his transition to an organizer of peaceful protests under the banner of the African National Congress party, his more radical turn as founder of the much more decidedly militaristic uMkhonto we Sizwe or MK, his arrest, the Rivonia trial, his imprisonment and release, and finally his election as President of South Africa. Special emphasis is also apparently going to be placed on the effect his advocacy and, later, his more extremist tendencies had on his friends and loved ones.
Madiba won’t be the first film about the adversities Nelson Mandela overcame throughout the course of his life. Terrence Howard, Idris Elba and Morgan Freeman have all portrayed Madiba on screen, so if you’ve seen at least one other film or documentary about Mandela’s life and are still debating whether to make room on your DVR for one produced by the BET network (which also produced the excellent Roots), let me just remind you that Laurence Fishburne stars in this iteration. While he doesn’t exactly look the part of the late President of South Africa, Fishburne has collected more than enough accolades in his prolific career, including an Academy Award nomination, an Emmy and a Tony, to prove that he has the acting chops to do the role justice. The other important distinction which sets this retelling of Mandela’s life apart from its predecessors is the director Kevin Hooks, the first ethnic South African to direct a biopic about Nelson Mandela. Filming for Madiba also took place on location in South Africa, often at historic sites (including Robbens Island where Mandela was imprisoned) which bore witness to the events being re-enacted for the cameras.
I can’t say with absolute certainty that Madiba will be worth your time when the entire six episode run has been broadcast in just under two weeks’ time but the cast (which also includes Orlando Jones, David Harewood, Michael Nyqvist and Terry Pheto) has no shortage of talent, and as I alluded to above, I believe reflecting on Mandela’s life now to be of tremendous importance. Contentious issues regarding race, which have been thrown in to sharp focus at the dawn of the Trump presidency, possess direct historical parallels to Mandela’s own struggles with a system of laws designed to partition South Africans via the ultimately meaningless criterion of skin color and heritage. Remembering not only who Mandela was, but why he spoke out against the injustice of Apartheid as he did, may very well be at least one step in the right direction toward fixing our own divides, and if the first episode is any indication Madiba will be one of the better depictions of that man’s life. Madiba Part Two air on the 8th of February on the BET at eight p.m. Eastern time, with Part Three airing a week later. Part One can be seen on the BET website with a verified cable subscription.